Sunday night we took the time to look at 1 Corinthians 3:5-17. We were trying to glean from Paul’s words some insight into what it means to be a strong church. So many these days tell us so many different things about what the church should be. Sadly, we often listen to them. Even to those who have no idea about what the church is.
I remember several years ago sitting in a Doctoral Seminar at Midwestern Seminary, and one of my classmates, Victor Clay, made this profound observation: "People come into the church not knowing what the church is, but we let them define what it ought to be." (I haven’t seen Victor since then, so I hope he doesn’t mind my using his words!)
What he was pointing out is the sad reality that much of our church “work” is done based on fads and fashions, polls and popularity contests. We want folks to come, we want them to come back, and so we go to some strange lengths some times to accommodate them. And, truthfully, sometimes it works. Or does it?
Paul speaks in that passage to the Corinthians about building on the foundation of Christ alone. Hopefully we know that. Hopefully I don’t have to chase that one down. Jesus Christ and Him crucified, that’s our message, right? But how do we build on that? And how do we know if it’s a good building?
The answer is simple: does your fruit last? As I pointed out Sunday night: “Unfortunately, we often put a lot of time and a lot of effort into functions that may not produce lasting fruit. We spend all kinds of effort and money and energy into some whiz bang event, and we draw big crowds and every one has a great time. We may even get folks to respond in some way, say that they’ve made commitments to Christ, or whatever.
“But what happens in the next few months, the next few years. Are the people who say they were affected by that event walking with the Lord, growing in their faith, maturing as followers of Christ? Or has their life shown little change at all. And if there is no change, have we really built on the foundation of Christ with lasting things?”
I’ve been doing some evaluating on my own here. I’ve been reflecting back on the last 20 or so years of preaching, thinking about the events we held, the sermons I preached, the things I taught. And I’ve thought about the lives that were impacted, or at least I hope were impacted. All those folks who claimed to follow Christ, who were baptized, who said they were impacted in one way or another by those ministries. Where are they all today? Are they still living for Christ? Are they growing and maturing in their faith? Has the fruit lasted?
And my reflections yield a mixed bag. Some folks I know are still actively and effectively serving Christ. Some, to be honest, I just don’t know; we’ve lost touch, etc. And sadly, some; well, some seem to have walked away and are just nowhere to be found in the church.
Now, I realize that it’s not always the fault of the preacher/church/ministry when folks fall away. Jesus Himself came to a point in His earthly ministry where He had gathered quite a large following, but because of the hard teachings of His gospel, “ many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66; I’ve always found that a particularly appropriate reference number!).
As Albert Barnes pointed out regarding those who turned back: "From this we may learn…not to wonder at the apostasy of many who profess to be followers of Christ. Many are induced to become his professed followers by the prospect of some temporal benefit, or under some public excitement, as these were; and when that temporal benefit is not obtained, or that excitement is over, they fall away.”
It’s the hearts of the individuals that cause them to turn away. It’s not “our fault” in one sense. It certainly wasn’t Jesus’ “fault,” He surely didn’t use the wrong ministry methods.
And yet something about Barnes’ comment strikes me as significant. He said, “Many are induced to become his professed followers by the prospect of some temporal benefit, or under some public excitement… and when that temporal benefit is not obtained, or that excitement is over, they fall away.”
I can’t help but think that if we are the ones causing that “public excitement” just to draw a crowd, and the results may be quick and large; but they don’t last; does that not constitute building with “hay, wood and straw” as Paul says? If we are implying some temporal benefit in our teaching that Scripture never promises, and folks respond only to turn away when it doesn’t manifest itself, aren’t we to blame? Shouldn’t we examine our methods and ministries to be sure that we are producing fruit that lasts, not just big crowds and lots of “decisions?”
I’ve been involved with events which have great turnouts, and lots of folks raise their hands or mark a card or whatever. But I often wonder, where are those folks now? Are they truly living for Christ? Has there been a genuine change? And if not, are our efforts in that kind of event/ministry/teaching really worth it; are they lasting fruit kinds of things.
I guess, ultimately it’s a decision each church, each minister has to make on their own. You have to do your own evaluations. But I think that’s the real problem. We’re not doing much real evaluation. We only look at the immediate results, and if it looks good, we say it worked. I don’t think we’re doing the long term evaluation that we need to do to see if what we’re doing as a church is really building with gold, silver and precious stones. Some times it may take years to see if the fruit is real, and then we may still wonder if it will last.
Yet there will come a day when the answer to that will be seen. The fire will test our work. And my prayer is that we would spend more time listening to God and to His Word, building on the right foundation; and less time focusing on polls and pragmatism; so that in that day the One True Judge will say to us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”